Everyone knows traveling with kids is hard.
But traveling with babies and toddlers? Now those parents deserve a medal!
As much as we love traveling as a family, it doesn’t mean we haven’t had a few (ok, many) bumps along the way. Whether it’s managing meltdowns or juggling all the things, we’ve learned a thing or two over the years to keep our family travels running like a well-oiled machine.
Stress-free + babies + toddlers. Is that even a thing?
Ok, sure, there’s hardly much relaxing on the beach. But with a little pre-planning and the right mindset, family travel with little ones can be fun!
Here are our top 10 tips for stress-free travel with babies and toddlers:
1. Pack Light
It sounds like an oxymoron, but traveling light is the #1 way we’re able to keep our sanity when it comes to traveling with a baby and toddler. Sure, there’s some bulk you probably can’t shed: the car seat, travel crib, stroller or carrier (though we do have a few favorites that make traveling with littles a whole lot easier).
But we’ve learned there’s one area we can cut down on: our suitcases.
Instead of packing loads of clothes and toiletries and baby supplies we follow two simple rules: one packing cube worth of clothes per person (the washing machine will be your new friend) and buy as much as you can after you arrive (diapers, wipes, formula, snacks…they take up a lot of space, people)!
If you can get rid of that extra weight and scale down to carry on-sized luggage, it will relieve oh so much of the stress of lugging everything with you.
2. Fly Early
Over the past 3 years of travel with a baby and toddler, we’ve experimented with a lot of different travel schedules. And yes, sometimes a good deal on a late afternoon flight is hard to resist. But by and large, we if have the option, we’ll fly out as early as possible.
Yes, even if it means a 4 am wake up call, we’ll almost always take the earliest flight out.
There are a few reasons we love to fly early:
- It eliminates that awkward time where you’re anxiously waiting to head to the airport. When you have a 5 am flight, you’re in go mode from the time you wake up to the time you board the airplane. There no time for anxiety when you’ve got a serious task at hand!
- Our kids are in their best moods. Yes, our tired littles are happiest when they’ve just woken up, even if it’s 5 am!
- The kids will nap on the plane! If you have a toddler like ours who refuses to nap, then you can totally relate on this one. An afternoon flight basically means our toddler will be fighting a nap the. whole. time., thus turning into a hot mess. But if we wake her up at 4 am for a flight? I can almost guarantee she’ll have no choice but to succumb to her exhausted body and fall asleep on the airplane.
- Arriving late means less time to settle into our destination. We almost always plan to buy things after we arrive: a run to Walgreens for diapers or the local grocery store for breakfast foods. Trying to do all that while managing moody, tired, hungry little kids at the end of a long travel day never goes well. Instead, we arrive early and give ourselves plenty of time to adjust to our new surroundings and prepare for the days ahead.
Keep in mind, every kid is different, and what works best for us might be different for someone else. So think about when you’re children are at their happiest, most agreeable time of day, and try to plan your travels to match.
3. Bend the Rules
I’m not exactly a super strict parent, but we do have some rules around here. That said, when it comes to travel days, all bets are off.
Travel days (especially airports) are stressful for everyone. So we understand that there will be attitudes and fits and a few more irrational tantrums than normal. For that reason, we let things slide a little more too. After all, we’re asking a lot of a children, schlepping them across the country in a tiny, cramped airplane.
So if you want to play on the iPad and watch movies all day? Sure, go ahead. Need more snacks. We’ve got those too! Want to sustain yourself on granola bars for 24 hours. WHY NOT?
Yes, we set the bar low. As long as our kids are not whining, yelling or kicking the seat in front of them, I’m calling it a win.
4. Snacks. And Then More Snacks.
Which brings me to my next point: snacks. Why are toddlers so hungry all the time? And why do they become even hungrier the minute they’re sat on a plane?
More important than toys or games or books, we never leave the house without a wonderful stash of snacks. Because kids can’t whine if they’re shoving their face with unlimited raisins and pretzels, right?
So always pack snacks. And then, pack a few more.
5. Adjust Your Expectations
We’ve all done it. We plan an awesome vacation for our kids and then we get there and they’re being total brats and we wonder why the heck they’re not appreciating this trip at all??
It didn’t take too many trips for us to realize the pretty simple answer to this question: cause they don’t.
Let’s face it, babies and toddlers don’t really care about the Mayan ruins or the Roman Colloseum. Of course, we want it to be a family experience, but most of this stuff isn’t for them…it’s for you.
And hey, that’s perfectly ok! But you’ve got to be willing to roll with the punches and adjust your expectations about what your travels will look like at this point in life, even if that means crossing off any sort of relaxing or slow-moving activity right off your bucket list.
Or at the very least, include these things in moderation. Sure, older kids might appreciate that awesome monument, but for now, plan activities your toddler will enjoy and find a balance that will keep everybody happy and entertained.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Pay for Conveniences
The first time we visited San Francisco with our baby and toddler in tow, I thought we’d be those super savvy travelers and take public transportation all around the city. After all, SF has a pretty good transit network, and we’d been there before so it wasn’t totally new to us.
What we did discover, though, was that all that extra travel time was wearing on our baby. Not having a car to go back to meant our toddler never got her mid-day cat nap. And suddenly, paying a couple hundred bucks for a rental car didn’t sound so bad.
I guess the moral of the story is, don’t be afraid to pay for conveniences, especially when you’re traveling with babies or toddlers.
Get the rental car. Rent a travel crib or high chair, if you must. Book a private transfer from the airport so you can get straight to your accommodations. Upgrade to the bigger hotel room.
Becaause these little things can go a long way when it comes to keeping your sanity while traveling with babies and toddlers.
7. Have a Game Plan for Arrival
Here’s a little secret about traveling with a baby or toddler: your vacation doesn’t actually start when you leave for the airport. Nope, you’ve got work to do mama.
You’ve gotta get through the flight, get to your hotel, pick up some milk, unpack your bags, and if you’re really on top of your game, unload a small stash of groceries into the fridge. Once you’ve done this, and all of this, then you can pop the cork and start your vacation.
Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? That’s why having a game plan for arrival will not only save you a lot of stress, but will also get you to your happy place so much faster. 🙂
So what exactly does this look like?
It might mean having ground transportation from the airport pre-booked so you can get on your way as soon as you hit the ground. It might mean ordering groceries for delivery to your Airbnb, or planning take-out for your first meal in the new city. It also means familiarizing yourself with the neighborhood, so you know where the closest stores are to stock up on essentials.
In short, think about exactly how that first day will go before you get there.
8. Slow Down
Gone are the days when we could once enjoy a long-weekend city break. These days, when traveling with a baby and a toddler, we’re lucky if a full week is enough to explore a new city!
Because right now, with a baby and a toddler, the go-go-go strategy to travel just isn’t working for us. It takes forever just to get out the door, and as soon as we do, we’re on limited time until everyone’s worn out again.
We’ve learned to manage our time in shorter 2-3 hour increments and take frequent breaks so everyone’s kept happy and agreeable. And heck, after all that running around, Mom & Dad need a nap too!
So don’t overdue your planning. Stick to 2 or 3 activities a day and no more. The reward will be happy babies and toddlers who are excited to keep adventuring with each new day.
9. Always Have An Exit Strategy
I think every parent knows this one well. Even at home, you’re always aware that something could go terribly wrong at any moment and are ready for the “quick exit”.
Whether it’s a meltdown, a blow out, or a medical emergency, being prepared for any and all scenarios while out and about in a new city is key.
So how can you be prepared for a quick exit?
- Park close to your activities. Stranded in the city while your rental car is parked 2 miles away? Nuh uh. We’ll pay exorbitant prices for downtown parking if we must.
- Have a second transportation option. In a pinch, if your car breaks down or the metro were to go on strike (I’m looking at you, Milan), would you know other ways to get home quickly? Having Uber or the local equivalent on your phone can be a lifesaver, and a good understanding of public transportation can be easily accessed with the Transit app.
- Always have the next meal planned. How many times have the toddler hangries curtailed our plans? Too many to count. So whenever we go anywhere, I always keep a nearby family-friendly restaurant in mind.
- Skip the guided tours. They’re just too tough at this age, because we never know what will be a good day or a bad day. And on a bad day, keeping a 2 year old together in front of a crowd of people is just too much work. Instead, we plan our own self-guided walking tours (or follow those from Detour or Rick Steves). That way, we can bail out or take a break whenever we need to.
10. Never Lose Your Sense of Humor
Oh, if I could only tell you the number of times my husband and I have looked at each other while traveling and said “is this real life???”
Stuff happens everywhere, but it really does seem like some of the craziest stuff has happened to us while traveling!
Toddler barfs all over themselves on the plane (twice)? Baby cries for 2 hours straight at the aquarium? You get lost and end up walking 2 miles uphill with all of your luggage in a foreign city?
Ah, the memories!
These are the kinds of situations that can either wreck your trip or bring you closer together. And I’m telling you, sometimes there’s no way to look at the bright side but to just have a laugh and say, “really Universe, really?”
I won’t sugarcoat it, traveling with babies and toddlers is tough. But my most important piece of advice? Just go for it. Be prepared, of course, but don’t go down the rabbit hole of all the terrible what if’s. Because, sure, it could be terrible. But, what if it’s amazing?
Do you travel often with a baby or toddler? What tips would you add?
Read Next: 50+ Ways to Occupy a Toddler on an Airplane
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